Fiu football | vs. No. 20 louisville, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)

South Florida connections abound for Louisville Cardinals as they face the FIU Panthers

 

From its current South Florida-laden roster to coaching icon Howard Schnellenberger, Louisville’s program has a big local link as it invades FIU Stadium.

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

FIU chose the Oct. 13 game against Middle Tennessee State for its homecoming. The Panthers just don’t want Saturday night to turn into a happy homecoming for about one-fifth of Louisville’s roster.

Geographic logic alone says UCF, last week’s FIU opponent, would be fat with South Florida natives. But No. 20 Louisville rolls into FIU Stadium from almost 1,100 miles away with 16 players from Miami-Dade County, three from Palm Beach County and two from Broward County.

When sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater throws to starting wide receiver Charles Gaines, that’s Miami Northwestern High to Miami Central, with Central helping protect Bridgewater in the person of sophomore guard John Miller. Louisville coaches talked fifth-year senior tight end Nate Nord from Boca Raton High out of skipping his last year of eligibility, and Nord has a team-high 10 receptions.

“I think the ties … some of the former University of Miami coaches that went up there as well as [head] Coach [Charlie] Strong, he’s been recruiting down here for a long, long time,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said, explaining the lower Sunshine State portion of Louisville’s roster.

Strong knows and became known in South Florida from four different stretches as a University of Florida assistant, the last being seven seasons as defensive coordinator from 2003 to ’09. But it is Clint Hurtt, a former University of Miami player and assistant and former FIU assistant, who keeps the South Florida-Louisville Autobahn smooth as Louisville’s recruiting coordinator.

Of Louisville’s Miami-Dade County players, only senior wide receiver Andrell Smith, a Miami Palmetto graduate, preceded Hurtt at Louisville.

FIU senior running back Darian Mallary saw Strong’s influence pull Louisville sophomore cornerback Andrew Johnson farther north than Johnson first intended.

“He loved Charlie Strong,” Mallary said. “Charlie Strong was at Florida, and he had committed to Ole Miss. After a while, Strong was at Louisville. He started speaking well of Charlie Strong. I was like, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it.’ When he figured out [Louisville] was playing FIU, that really got it because he really wanted to play against me.”

We’ll get to why later.

“Louisville’s always had a pretty strong connection in South Florida,” Cristobal said. “I remember being a player and being recruited by Louisville in 1988. Coach [Howard] Schnellenberger did it, [former Louisville coach Bobby] Petrino, those guys have had a steady flow.”

Among the links between Louisville and Miami — Muhammad Ali, Mark Clayton, world famous horse tracks, “How Southern is it really?” debates — one must list college-affiliated football’s greatest bringer of resurrection and life.

Schnellenberger graduated from Louisville Flaget High. Between coaching the University of Miami’s program from extinction’s edge to a national title and creating Florida Atlantic’s program, Schnellenberger revived Louisville football. It’s not for want of a long name that Louisville football works out of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.

All the who-knows-who in last week’s intrastate head-on with UCF gave it a civil war feel. Rinse and repeat this week. After all, Saturday actually pits brother against brother — Johnson and Mallary, who will likely start in place of injured junior running back Kedrick Rhodes, a game-time decision.

“Last year, I was a little depressed because I didn’t get to play,” said Mallary, who spent most of last season recovering from a broken leg. “I haven’t gotten any sleep yet, I’ve been thinking about this game so much. I know I might hug him and start crying. I hope I don’t, but I’m so sensitive, I’m so proud.”

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